Classics in today’s literary world wield a staying power not seen in other works that fall to the wayside.
What is it about classic works that gives them that power of sustainability? For Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness,” few themes and messages will escape the relevance modern readers seek.
“Heart of Darkness” tells the story of Captain Marlow, who in the late 19th century takes a steamboat up the Congo River in Africa. More than that, he takes a journey into the very heart of his own morals and the morals of his society. Questioning everything he grew up believing about Imperialist England and Europe, Marlow takes on the moral load of Mr. Kurtz, who has abandoned all of his European values for the savagery of ruling his tiny portion of the Congo.
Told from Marlow’s point of view, readers witness his beginnings as a bright, enthusiastic explorer for his country. That enthusiasm decays when he sees countless fellow Europeans brutally treating the natives, and their own employees, as lesser beings. Mr. Kurtz is said to be the brightest of them all, the most dedicated genius in the whole company. When Marlow ventures downriver through the terrifying, silent jungle to look for Kurtz, he recoils at the hollow shadow Kurtz has become.
Sick and dying, Kurtz is little more than a skeleton who has fallen away from every European value. He decorated his lawn with impaled heads and befriended local tribes in order to protect himself. Most of his family believes him to be dead, and his Intended—capital I—has heard barely an honest word from the man. When Marlow returns to England, he tracks down these people and apologizes for Kurtz, which carries much more meaning than a simple “I’m sorry.”
Readers in this age can see in Marlow a man who not only questions his society’s shallow values, but why he himself would be willing to hold them. Today’s social climate brings to mind “Heart of Darkness.” Sensible folks battle against the cliché American Dream and call into question any value that seems harmful to humanity, and if that means defying the social norm, then that is exactly what these folks do.
Usually they’re called Christians. Like Marlow, Christians take responsibility for the brokenness left behind by “geniuses” of the world around them. Social injustices permeate society today and people have a moral obligation as humans to respond to these injustices in a way that brings healing.
Marlow could not bring medicine to every sick officer or safe jobs for every African. A task of that scale requires much more than one man in a half-broken steamboat. What Marlow brought back to England was an understanding of the Congo natives as humans and a self-obligation to apologize for the injustices brought on people by careless others.
This is the staying power of classics—that they speak to people still. “Heart of Darkness” is a prime example, even 100 years after its publication.